Shanghai censors can’t hide stories about the dead

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ZHOU SHENNY NEEDED doctor, and quickly. A 49-year-old woman who was having an asthma attack was being taken by her family to Shanghai Oriental Hospital, where she worked as a nurse, for emergency treatment. It was March 23rd and the Chinese city was under strict quarantine due to Covid.

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However, when they arrived at the emergency room, the Zhou family found that it had been closed for disinfection in accordance with Shanghai regulations to contain the spread of Covid. They urgently needed medical attention, and they had no choice but to go to another hospital, located about 9 kilometers away. Zhou later died.

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Zhou’s death sparked outrage Chinese social networksbut this was not an isolated case. Shanghai’s citywide lockdown lasted two months, with most restrictions lifted on June 1st. But little has changed in those two months, including the city’s hospitals, which have suffered sudden closures, with many limiting their services to emergencies only. Patients requiring medical attention were asked to present a negative PCR test to seek medical attention.

From February to May, Shanghai health authorities reported 588 deaths associated with Covid-19, the majority of older residents. But officials didn’t count people like Zhou who could die as a result of the city’s restrictions.

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Collateral damage discussions China’s anti-coronavirus policy are strictly limited in the country. Censors have blocked comments from people opposing the pandemic strategy, including comments from World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. But, as always in China, censorship does not prevent people from finding technical workarounds express disagreement.

14TH OF APRIL, a WeChat account called Shi You shared an article titled “Shanghai is dead” that reported people in the city who had apparently died as a result of the tight lockdown restrictions. The comment section of the article quickly filled with posts from people saying they had also heard of or knew someone who had died during the lockdown.

Capser Yu immediately realized that both the article and the comments were important. A native of Shanghai who now works in Singapore, Yu has heard stories of people who have lost loved ones during the lockdown. One of the missing was Chen Xiangru, a 3-year-old girl who reportedly failed to receive timely treatment when she developed a serious fever in late March. Chen died in the hospital while waiting for the result of a PCR test needed by doctors to provide treatment.

Worried that censors would hide important evidence, Yu began taking screenshots of the WeChat article. A few hours later, WeChat removed the article. When people in China tried to open the article again, all that was left was a message that “breaks the rules“.

Yu posted content on a blog he created called Real China to help his parents in Shanghai stay up to date on how China’s news is being reported abroad. Within hours, Chinese censors blocked the repost of the content. Yu says article, which is still available outside of China, had over 20,000 reads before it was censored. Since then, the link started working again for unknown reasons, and by the end of June it became the most read entry on Yu’s blog.

Over the past two months, several projects have surfaced online trying to document deaths related to the recent quarantine in Shanghai. One of the largest on the collaboration service Airtable was launched live. from April. The page is a mixture of basic descriptions, images of dead bodies, location information, scanned documents, and photographs of the smiling faces of loved ones who have now passed away. The database went viral but was quickly banned from WeChat and Weibo for containing “inappropriate content“. While users in China can still access it, discussion of the database on social media is limited.

By early June, the database contained 210 entries, each representing a supposedly lost life. It is not clear how many of these deaths could be directly related to the Shanghai shutdown, but separate account, conducted by Singapore-based news agency Initium Media, said at least 170 people had died as a result of quarantine measures by early May. The report claims that many of the deaths were related to difficulties in accessing emergency medical care.

A Shanghai-based recruiter who asks not to be named for security reasons says he felt “hopeless” when he learned of the death of an industry colleague’s mother, who had skin cancer and was reportedly denied treatment due to for Covid. Although he did not know the woman personally, the recruiter decided not to let her death go unnoticed. On Reddit he found general google sheet which, like the Airtable database, kept records of the dead.

The recruiter added the information he knew about the woman to the fact-checking table. Volunteers contributing to the document are required to provide their sources, and each link is archived by the Wayback Machine in case the post goes missing. The shared document has stricter search rules and fewer entries than Airtable’s database — 60 cases in total — and was last updated in early May.

The recruiter says he has no idea who created the document or who he worked with, but it makes him feel more secure. “I would be a little scared if we spoke to each other in private,” he says, adding that he is still being reprimanded at school for speaking out against a powerful official on Twitter.

IT’S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to understand the extent of the suffering caused by the recent lockdown of Shanghai. But Daohauer, a volunteer-run self-help network set up to help people access food, treatment and medicine during the lockdown, hints at a level of desperation. The site worked by encouraging residents urgently in need of supplies or medical assistance to leave a message, and then volunteers would contact them to help. BUT visualization queries sent to the network shows that more than half of the queries related to the availability of medical services.

The page has kept a record of 1,297 requests in Shanghai involving seriously ill people since April 11, when the data became available. Such inquiries peaked in mid-April, when the site reported a surge in messages from people seeking help accessing health care.

The Daohouer cases were visualized by two Chinese people living in Canada who are part of a technical team called O3O. The pair plan to archive data sent to the platform in case censors somehow clean it up. “The older generation has a habit of stocking up on food,” says one of the O3O co-founders, who asked not to be named. “But the younger generation has a habit of taking screenshots of everything that can be considered confidential.” The duo also maintain a website called Our memory of the pandemic which invites people to write down the stories of their lives in isolation. The site, anticipating possible censorship in China, automatically submits each story to the Wayback Machine.

Despite efforts to register deaths in the city, the Shanghai-based recruiter remains skeptical that the government would launch an official investigation into the number of people reported to have died as a result of the recent lockdown. Such efforts have not been reported since similar citywide lockdowns in cities like Xi’an, where deaths have been linked to difficulties in accessing medical care. also reported.

However, the recruiter hopes that memory projects and recordings of the dead will one day help people learn what life and death were really like in Shanghai during the harshest lockdowns. “Perhaps one day in the future, when we can discuss the outbreak and learn from it, these materials will be used for reference.”

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